Sutton Coldfield could free itself from direct Birmingham City Council control under plans being drawn up for a new Town Council, it has been claimed.
A band of Sutton Coldfield residents are raising a petition which they hope could culminate in the foundation of Britain’s largest town council and give the Royal Town greater autonomy.
If more than 7,539 of Sutton’s electorate sign up – organisers say 2,000 plus already have – a referendum will be held on whether the town should break away.
Already, under the council’s devolution policy, responsibilty for refuse and recycling, local roads, housing management and parks and leisure services has been handed to the town’s 12 councillors.
But under a town council, in a move dubbed ‘devolution max’ by supporters, even more responsibilities, including planning and licensing policy, would be passed over.
It would also see the reinstatement of the Mayor of Sutton Coldfield, a role which was scrapped in 1974 when the former borough was absorbed into Birmingham.
Supporters claim it would be a golden opportunity for Sutton Coldfield to take control of its own future and, while not freeing itself completely from Birmingham’s control, put some distance between the two.
But critics say it will be another costly tier of local government, while the key functions would remain under the strategic control of Birmingham City Council.
The campaign for Sutton Coldfield independence has a long history dating back to the day it ceased to be a Royal Borough in 1974, becoming just another district of Birmingham and part of the largest local authority in Europe.
The Sutton Coldfield councillors deferred the chance to fast track to a referendum at a meeting this week, demanding more information on costs and powers from the city council’s legal department.
As much of the legislation allowing this is new, contained in last year’s Localism Act, they believe they are heading into uncharted waters and want full details ironed out before ploughing on.
But petition organisers believe they will hit the target by Christmas anyway and set it in motion, ultimately leading to the establishment of a constituted town council by 2015.
The council would have its own elected members and the relationship to Birmingham would be similar, but not exactly the same, as that of a district and county council.
A key difference would be that the council tax raising powers would remain in Birmingham, although the town could add a precept, similar to that added by parish councils.
Ken Rushton, of the Sutton Coldfield Association of Neighbourhood Forums, said: “Sutton Coldfield is larger than many district councils. We just cannot remain as the single largest centralised undemocratic council in Europe for ever.
“If the people of Sutton Coldfield had their way they would want to get out of Birmingham altogether.”
He said that the town council would be a step in the right direction as long as it is legally constituted, so that a future leader of Birmingham City Council could not just stop it.
The petition is being supported by the town’s only Labour councillor Rob Pocock (Sutton Vesey), a long-term advocate of devolution.
He proposed a motion to fast track the referendum, but was out voted by the Conservative majority.
He said: “For once, we have a new city council that is actually responding to the passionate desire of most Sutton residents, many of them traditional Conservatives, who want rid of the current dictatorial, over-centralised control from Birmingham.
“The city council offered rapid progress. Instead we have now got more procrastination, dithering and delay.”
He said that many Tory voters support the change but added: “Their councillors are caught like rabbits in headlights. It is typical of their spineless lack of leadership on this issue that when faced with this choice, the one they choose is to run away.”
But the Conservative chairwoman of the district committee Coun Anne Underwood (Sutton Four Oaks) said there was simply too little information to go on.
She had invited legal officers to the meeting but they could not answer her questions over the cost and process for devolution.
“We will not push this until we get the answers. It’s all very well promising a Mayor for Sutton Coldfield, but people may not be so keen if it going to cost them.”
Coun Underwood has also been sceptical of the Birmingham Labour administration’s devolution pledge after the Sutton Coldfield District Committee was prevented from meeting in the town and must instead meet in the Council House in Victoria Square.
“The argument for this was that we would have access to the expertise of officers. But the legal department officials we had this week could not answer our questions.”
If the petition secures the 7,539 verified signatures of registered voters it will trigger a governance review under which officers will flesh out the details for the town council.
Once the results of the review are published, there will be a period of consultation at the end of which a referendum will be held which all residents can take part in.